Fighting for the Soul of Islam
How a decades-old crisis of authority affects the campaign against terrorism
Americans have heard it repeatedly since September 11: The acts of terrorism inflicted on our shore were the murderous consequences of an ongoing struggle within Islam. At its most dramatic extremes, that conflict pits radical jihadists against moderate Muslims. But a quieter front in the struggle is probably of greater import. It involves the millions of Muslims who are being wooed by the proselytizers of a puritanical, and often highly politicized, strain of the faith. This volatile blend of Saudi Wahhabi Islam and political Islam-dubbed Islamism by one of its early-20th-century founders-is the assembly line of future jihadists, some experts hold, and its agents are busy indoctrinating young Muslims from Lahore to Los Angeles.
The outcome of this clash will bear directly on the course of the war on terrorism by answering the most fundamental question: Is mainstream Islam compatible with democracy and basic rights and freedoms established by international law?
While the stakes of this struggle are enormously high, American and European efforts to make sense of it have so far proved to be inadequate. A new Rand report, only the most recent such critique, charges that the U.S. government-almost six years after 9/11-still lacks a "consistent view on who the moderates are, where the opportunities for building networks among them lie, and how best to build the networks."
The difficulties of identifying who speaks for Islam-much less whom the West would like to be speaking-were on ample display last month in Florida, where two groups of Muslim activists and concerned experts assembled for conferences on opposite coasts.
In St. Petersburg, the Secular Islam Summit, sponsored by a humanist organization called the Center for Inquiry, featured Muslim speakers who ranged from angry ex-believers to devout reformers. They differed sharply on particulars, but all shared the conviction that Islam must be compatible with secular democracy. Their closing manifesto, "The St. Petersburg Declaration," affirmed the separation of mosque and state, gender equality in personal and family law, and unrestricted critical study of Islamic traditions.
Identity. On the same weekend, the south Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held its conference in Fort Lauderdale. Among its speakers, Geneive Abdo, a Lebanese-American (of Christian background) and author of Mecca and Main Street, discussed how young American Muslims have been strengthening their Islamic identity since 9/11.
At least as significant as the meetings themselves, however, were the denunciations hurled back and forth by attendees of the separate events. Repeatedly, speakers in St. Petersburg denounced CAIR as typifying fellow-traveling Islamism. Absorbed with grievance-group politics and hypersensitive to any criticism of Muslims, it receives, various speakers noted, generous funding from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. More disturbingly, as many in St. Petersburg pointed out, some CAIR officials have refused to denounce Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, while others have been too quick to declare who is, or who is not, a true Muslim.
Playing to type, the executive director of the Tampa chapter of CAIR, Ahmed Bedier, dismissed the St. Petersburg crowd as a bunch of "atheists and non-Muslims" with no standing in the Muslim community. Later, in the Washington Post, Abdo observed that despite the attention western media lavish on secularized Muslims, they represent only a small minority. By contrast, those Muslims associated with CAIR, she wrote, "more closely reflect the views of the majority not only in the United States, but worldwide."